09 September 2010

The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat

The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat, by neurologist Oliver Sacks, is a collection of case histories of his patients.

The book is divided into four sections, corresponding to categories of brain (dys)function: neurological deficits, neurological excesses, visions and altered perceptions, and mental retardation and savants. There are 24 stories in all, varying in length and style. Both the clinical accounts and Sacks's personal reflections on each case are very interesting, though some of the shorter chapters left me wanting more.

One of the most unsettling cases, "A Matter of Identity", is about one William Thompson, a patient with Korsakov's syndrome. He can only remember things for a few seconds, so his mind is continuously forced to improvise ad-hoc stories to explain his surroundings. When Sacks introduces himself, Thompson (mis)identifies Sacks as a customer, and himself as a butcher (which he was, before he was institutionalized); then, noticing Sacks's white coat, he figures him for a fellow butcher; eyeing Sacks's stethoscope, he assumes Sacks to be a mechanic (for some reason); then a doctor; then a customer, again; and on and on. Thompson switches from one explanation to another fluently, never showing any hesitation or uncertainty. He is totally oblivious. Sacks muses, wondering whether Thompson, who has consciousness but lacks continuity, can be said to have an identity, or even a soul. And though Sacks can do little to mitigate Thompson's condition, he does notice that when Thompson is left alone in the garden, he finds a peace that he's not able to obtain anywhere else.

So it is with many of the accounts in the book, that Sacks shows his resourcefulness as a healer. Some of his patients have disorders that make them seem almost hopelessly walled off from the rest of the world. And yet Sacks is often able to break through somewhere, to help patients get in their element—to find some context or activity in which their disorders fade or seem to disappear entirely. It's through clinical accounts, surprisingly, that one sees the human and compassionate side of both the doctor and his patients.

The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat has many beautiful and wondrous tales, and it really gets one thinking about what it means to be human. Recommended.

1 comment:

  1. Many years ago at an annual juggling convention I saw Sem Abraham carry his (tiny) wife Theresa around standing _on his head_ (not his shoulders). The next year I brought a copy of the book to show him.